As mentioned in past posts, this autumn’s trip route had to be adjusted almost daily due to rapidly changing weather conditions. My plan had been to spend time closer to the coast early in the trip, then move eastward at the end. However, as the days and miles rolled by, we ended up moving ever east and southward. I would get up each morning, check out the current weather around me, read the weather forecasts emailed to the blackberry by my brother back in Canada, and then map out the next move while munching on breakfast. After a time, it began to feel like a strategic game – as though California was an enormous chessboard of sun and clouds, blasted by roving storm systems. If I moved here, it was likely that I’d be clobbered by rain. If I moved there, strong winds out of the north might dump snow on me. The trip route became entirely improvisational, often wandering off over some mountain range or down some highway I’d never even considered before breakfast.
The trip over Mount Lassen became one of the many route modifications on my journey. Twice in past years, I’d intended to visit Lassen, only to be thwarted by early snows blocking off the main road through the park. On this year’s trip, Lassen seemed to be among the few areas with stable weather so it was simply a seize-the-moment decision to go. Under clear skies, we followed Route 89 as it entered the park boundary to begin the winding ascent over the summit.
Being both driver and trip documentarian, I didn’t take many photos along this route. If you’ve driven through Lassen, it’s likely you’ll know why. A narrow highway, occasionally topped with patches of icy melt, winds ever upwards, while the often narrow shoulder dives abruptly several hundreds of feet down screes unbroken by trees or any other solid objects. For the acrophobic (such as myself), concentrating on keeping the van on firm pavement occupied most of my time. Clicking while driving, even at a snail’s pace, was not a temptation.
Fortunately, there were turnouts from which to photograph the several beautiful lakes along the route. Emerald Lake was, true to its name, a wonderful translucent green, reflecting even the most minute patches of snow from the slope beyond (top photo – click on all photos for larger views). Similarly, Lake Helen (above), and Manzanita Lake (also above) provided “post card” opportunities for shots – the kind of thing I suppose we come to expect in a national park.
However, for me, it’s the smaller places or objects that tend to capture my attention. Maybe it’s just that I’m used to landscapes where a White Pine is often the tallest point in view. Or, perhaps it’s that I tend to spend a lot of time looking down at my feet, focusing on insects and other tiny beings. I took greatest delight in watching mysterious eddies form, disappear, and then reform across the surface of the swift, crystal waters of Hat Creek (above), or measuring a massive corn-cob-like conifer cone against my shoe.
We camped at two sites within Lassen – at Manzanita Lake, near the northeast park boundary – and then at Butte Lake, which is accessed from a road leading south into the park from Route 44. At Butte Lake, it seemed that we might be the sole campers, until late in the evening when a car pulled in and someone pitched a tent well-removed from our site. The campground is sheltered by a towering Ponderosa Pines. The sound of the breeze through their needles was unbroken by human-generated noise. There are lava flows – massive jumbles of black rock pressing against the forest and a large tongue extending into the lake (click on photo below to see an area of the flow in the background). I would have liked to hike the trail leading to the Painted Dunes, but dogs cannot be taken on the park’s trail system (see this visitor’s account and photos of the dunes and nearby cinder cone). Instead, we settled on wandering around nearby the campground where we came upon one of the largest and most beautiful Ponderosa pines that I’ve yet seen while traveling in the west. I wish I’d thought enough to have Sage and Sabrina sit in front of it for scale, but take my word – it was quite a tree (see below). The next morning, leaving Butte Lake, we traveled east to Susanville, and then south down the eastern side of the Sierras. More about that soon.